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Death poems book: don't leave it to the last minute
Dead Poem Book Claude McKay small.jpg


Poets are a morbid lot, I quipped at my brief presentation on Thursday evening at  "The Art of Comfort & Joy: A Tribute to End-of-Life Care Providers" sponsored by Compassion & Choices of Northern California. If you have not heard of this organization, they are helping to make your passage to heaven, nirvana, the next bardo, great chain of being or great wink of eternity, an easier, more dignified one. On this special program, several speakers did a kind of show-and-tell about the work they do at the bedsides of the dying or with the families and medical professionals who are supporting and caring for those on their way out.

Stewart Florsheim, author of The Short Fall from Grace, which includes poems about caretaking for his parents as they approached their deaths, got me into this when he caught wind of my "death poems book" project (more about that later). Sherri Lynn Wood of Passage Quilts described how she makes quilts out of the clothing of a dying loved one, working with families to select garments, and showing how each quilt is a distinct reflection of an individual's personality and temperament. Paula Zand, a healing harpist, and Denni Adamson, a nurse who practices Comfort Massage, were also on the program. Arnima Rashidee, a California high school student announced as the winner of C&C's "Matters of Life & Death" writing contest, was there with her family to read her articulate, thoughtful essay. The evening concluded with a performance by the Threshold Choir, founded in 1997 by Kate Munger.

My small role was to present the afore-mentioned "death poems book," a project that I started several years ago after having several of my own experiences of being with those who were succumbing to death. In one case, my dear friend's mother was dying at home, an experience that launched Sharon Waller into a new field of study and a new profession as a Kaiser Permanente hospice chaplain. For me, a lifetime lover of poetry and words, I realized that when it comes time to face my own dying days, I don't want to leave it to chance what words and music I shall hear. 

There is a Zen tradition of poets writing their signature "death poem," but what I'm talking about is something else. This is a selfish desire to have the beautiful poems that have seen me through my life at hand to see me through my death. And, since I may be too sick or feeble to send friends to my bookshelves to track down these works, I thought, why not make a book with all of my favorites in it? It could be given to anyone kind enough to visit me, so that they might read the poems aloud, and they should be pretty pages to entertain the reader. I've always loved medieval illumination, and so I launched on creating this special book.

I've filled it with poems by Mary Oliver ("Happiness"), Wallace Stevens (the appropriate end-of-life poem, "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour"), Wendell Berry ("The Peace of Wild Things"), and other pieces by Claude McKay, Louise Bogan, John Donne, John Clare, May Swenson, etc. I hope I have a long time to add to the book, bringing in new poems that delight me and sifting through the old ones. I don't have an order yet, just pages I have decorated with hand-written poems (for the most part), and my scratches and scrawls and work with colored pens and pencils.

It's nothing fancy, just a project I do late at night as I redeem the wasted listening that comes with my "drug of choice," television. I offer the idea to anyone who wants to play with it. The poems are out there, online, in books, for the taking. There is nothing commercial in this, and hopefully there won't be. It's about giving up the ghost, and that, my friend, won't cost us a thing.

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SpinningJannie is the

SpinningJannie is the blogname of Jannie Dresser, Poet and Writer